Friday, November 11, 2011

Rufus Putnam to the Natives:

Recently I've come across a great deal of evidence (too much for me to document) of Founding era figures speaking to unconverted Natives, addressing God as "The Great Spirit." I'm not sure how much or what to make of it.

Here is my latest find from Rufus Putnam. Speaking to the Natives in 1792:


I thank the great Spirit who has inclined our Hearts to do good; and to establish a Peace between You and the United States — Brothers

Let us endeavour to restore Peace and happiness to all as far as lies in our Power; and for this purpose I request that You will send a Speech to Your Neighbours the Miamis, Dellawares, Shawanos and other Tribes, who have hitherto stopped their Ears, and refused to Speak with the United States about Peace; altho many Speeches have been sent to them for that purpose — Brothers,

I propose to send one Speech more requesting them to open a Road to some place or other, where we may meet and Speak to one another; And I trust with Your assistance, that the great Spirit will cause this good Work to succeed —


Jim51 said...

I'm not sure that we should read anything in particular into the use of 'Great Spirit.' I have also seen a number of such instances in the writings of various Founders but it has always occured to me that it was only used in order to be understood by the particular audience.
Have you noted a pattern of use, or non-use, that would lead you to think that it has some additional significance?

Jonathan Rowe said...


Great question comment. I think there is an obvious reason for calling God "The Great Spirit" and that's as a communication bridge (or I guess lingua franca) (I've also seen Americans when talking to the Indians refer to George Washington as the "The Great Chief" of the United States). The only additional issue is the theological one whether in fact Native Americans and their "Great Spirit" worship the same God Jews, Christians and all monotheists worship. Some "orthodox" say no. The more generous ecumenical types say yes. A parallel example is whether Jews, Christians and Muslims, as monotheists all worship the same God (the God of Abraham as they all claim).